Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Intellectual Work and Economic Survival

By Ellen Willis

On the crudest level, the lives of American intellectuals and artists are defined by one basic problem: how to reconcile intellectual or creative autonomy with making a living. They must either get someone to support their work--whether by selling it on the open market, or by getting the backing of some public or private institution--or find something to do that somebody is willing to pay for that will still leave them time to do their "real work." How hard it is to accomplish this at any given time, and what kinds of opportunities are available, not only affect the individual person struggling for a workable life, but the state of the culture itself. This tension between intellectual work and economic survival is thoroughly mundane and generally taken for granted by those who negotiate it every day; but to look at the history of the past thirty years or so is to be struck by the degree to which the social, cultural, and political trajectory of American life is bound up with this most ordinary of conflicts.
Exerpted from "The Writer's Voice: Intellectual Work in the Culture of Austerity," in Post-Work: The Wages of Cybernation (Routledge, 1998).